Monday, August 27, 2012

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) or California Buckthorn (Rhamnus californicus)? - leaves

Manzanita, genus Arctostaphylos, is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to the western United States and British Columbia, Canada.  It is characterized by smooth red or orange bark and ornamental twisting branches. The berries can be made into cider or used as a medicine for poison oak rash.  Dried, the berries can be ground into a coarse meal.  It is believed that the Indians may have used Manzanita leaves as toothbrushes.

California Buckthorn is a shrub or shrubby tree of the genus Rhamnus. This plant is native to the US states of California and southern Oregon.  It is also called "Coffeeberry" because its berries contain seeds which resemble coffee beans.  The berries begin green and turn red, then purple, and finally black by late summer.  Native Americans gathered the berries, using them for both food and medicinal purposes.  This plant is also referred to as "Dyers Buckthorn" because of the rich yellow dye obtained from the berries.

You may wish to read the comments to this blog for discussion about this plant's identification.

The plants pictured here were seen growing along the roadside in the Sierra Nevada mountains just west of Susanville, California. We were traveling home from a family wedding in Nevada.  It was the deep mahogany color of the branches which first attracted my attention and caused us to stop and investigate. 
Manzanita or California Buckthorn?
Berries in mid-August
Each berry has two nut-like seeds inside which is consistent with California Buckthorn

Not knowing what the plant was, I wondered if the bark might be useful in dyeing.  We cut off one branch loaded with berries and leaves.  I have not yet tried dyeing with the berries or the bark, which is very smooth and tight, but I did pull off the leaves and gave them a go in the dyepot, simmering the leaves for an hour, then simmering a mordant sample card along with a skein of wool yarn pre-mordanted with alum. 

Leaves simmering in dyepot

 Here are the results:
 Manzanita (or Cal. Buckthorn?) Leaves Mordant Sample Card
Leaves, alum mordant on wool
  Sometime I plan to try dyeing with the berries and the bark.


  1. Hi, I just came across your blog as I'm excited to get back into natural dyeing — thank you for the great resource. I was especially interested to see this post as I recognised the plant you've used as the Manzanita tree, which grows abundantly around where I live in southern Oregon. I'm pretty sure it's this plant, of the genus Arctostaphylos, rather than the California Buckthorn. I hope this might help you find the plant again if you liked the dye it produced, and thanks for demonstrating its potential!

  2. Hi, Liz. Thanks for commenting on my blog. I have certainly been wrong on my plant identification before, so I have done some further research on the Manzanita tree as well as the California Buckthorn. Both trees/shrubs look very similar in pictures, especially with their deep red branches and berries. One difference may be that the end of the buckthorn branches taper into a very sharp, pointy thorn, hence it's name. My branch definitely has those thorns. Also, the berries of the buckthorn have two nuts/seeds inside each berry. My berries do have two. Also, the veining on my leaves is consistent with the description I have read of the veining of the buckthorn leaves. I may be mistaken, but I still think my plant is the California Buckthorn.

  3. It sounds like you're absolutely right, I had no idea the two plants were so similar. But that may be because I've never actually seen a California Buckthorn in reality so was just basing my judgment on online images... Still, I might try the manzanitas around here and see if they yield anything like your results with the buckthorn. Thanks once again for the great blog!

  4. Hi Pallas and Liz,

    I scanned down to the comments here because I had the very same reaction: that's Manzanita! In my experience, the California Buckthorn's veining is very pronounced--always raised, whereas the Manzanita veining may be visible, but is not raised to the touch. Your description of the seeds is another story, because the Manzanita berries I've opened have always had multiple sections like an orange... So that leaves me with a small question mark. Still, the overall form of the plant and the way the berries attach to the branch all say Manzanita to me. Perhaps the difference is just more pronounced here in Arizona and you've found a CA Buckthorn doing a darn good Manzanita impression :)

    1. Hi Deborah,
      While further researching online the manzanita and buckthorn plants, I found a link which included an e-mail address to the Naturalist Center at California Academy of Sciences at Berkeley. The Naturalist Center has a "Manzanita Project." So, I e-mailed them a link to my blog on the California buckthorn and asked if they could help me with the identification of the plant I harvested, asking if it is manzanita. They kindly responded the following:

      "It is too difficult to tell from the photos as to what exact species or subspecies of manzanita or buckthorn that is. What I can do is provide you with links that include information and photos on both buckthorn and manzanita plants/trees by common name and you can compare what you are using with those photos, etc."

      Perhaps I am mistaken, but this response leads me to believe that some species of the two plants may appear very similar. I checked out the links they provided, but it is very hard for me to make a determination based on the photos I see. One link showed a map with a distribution of the California buckthorn plant, showing that this plant does indeed grow in the area where I harvested the plant. Perhaps the manzanita grows in that area as well. There was no map showing the distribution of that plant. So, I am still stumped as to which plant mine actually is.

      I did add a photo to my blog showing an opened berry with the two nut-like seeds that were inside. Of course, this is after the berry has been sitting in a jar for months and was dry. However, my recollection is that when I first got home with the plant and opened a berry, it had those two "nut" seeds inside, which helped lead me to believe that it was the buckthorn plant. Deborah, if you have any manzanita nearby and can take another look inside one of the berries and see if it looks anything like my picture, maybe that will be the telling factor.


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  7. Your photo graphs are of manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) in the heath family,not coffee berry in the buckthorn family (Frangula, previously Rhamnus)...not sure what the seeds you have are......
    THe leaves in your pot are manzanita leaves....we have like 45 species of rare along the California coast...Please make sure you are not collecting rare or endangered species.....

  8. Checking on fruits...Frangula californica (coffee berry) produces a two stoned fruit (drupes). Manzanita can have from 2-10 stones in the single fruit...stones = hard seeds
    California coffee berry leaves are distinctive, generally rather long and slender and not as stiff and waxy as manzanita leaves...manzanita leaves which are typically broad.
    Your dyes look beautiful!

  9. California coffee berry does not have thorns. Most species of buckthorn in the genus Rhamnus (now includes mostly the red-berries) in California do not have thorns.
    The thorny issue: I think your seeing another very abundant shrub genus, wild lilac, Ceanothus...we have many different species, and some have twigs terminating in a thorn-like point...
    Your photograph shows potentially two different species of manzanita growing right next to each other, one with blue gray leaves and one with greener leaves...closer inspection would likely reveal other differences....
    Where are you located geographically...are you in the Santa Cruz mountains near lime soils?

  10. Gustavo, I appreciate your comments on my blog. Liz and Deborah also left comments on this post believing the plant to be a species of Manzanita, so perhaps it is. However, I wonder why the botanists from the California Academy of Sciences at Berkeley, who are working on "The Manzanita Project" could not give me a definitive answer whether the plant was Manzanita or California Buckthorn, telling me they could not tell from my pictures. Yet, everyone else seems so certain!

    I do not live in California, but in Washington state, and was completely unfamiliar with either Manzanita or California Buckthorn before encountering this plant. We were traveling home from Nevada when we saw this plant growing profusely along the roadsides of a northern Sierra Nevada mountain pass (no where near the coast). It seemed to be growing in abundance, so I didn't even think about the possibility of it being an endangered species. It was growing like a weed, literally everywhere! In this case, I took one small branch from one plant, leaving the plant to grow. However, you are absolutely right that I should have checked before harvesting to make sure that it is not an endangered species. I wasn't thinking. I stand reprimanded for that and will try to be more careful in the future.

    Once home, I searched online to learn more about the plant and thought it's characteristics closely matched those of the California Buckthorn. However, I now see that some of those characteristics also match the Manzanita. My plant has none of the peeling of the bark typical with the Manzanita and my berry seeds appear more Buckthorn. Some online pictures show the Buckthorn with slender leaves, but other pictures show rounder leaves like mine. Some pictures show a gray bark, others show a red color. Perhaps they are different species of the same plant.

    In any case, I may change the title of my post since there is no way for me to be certain, either way.

  11. That's a green leafed manzanita, not a California buckthorn aka coffeeberry. The large coin shaped, green leafed manzanita are much less abudant in northern California than the silver leafed manzanita. The size and shape of the leaves are consistent with the larger green leafed variety and are key to their identification. Along the coast one can find smaller green leafed manzanitas but the shape of the leaves are much more narrow and significantly smaller. There are something like 300 varieties of manzanita in California alone. That the Berkeley project was unable to answer your question only tells me that their urban, coastal location does not lend well to developing an experience with this native. I live in densely manzanita wooded far Northern California, away from the coast and we specialize in California natives.
    Based on your description of driving home to Washington state along the California interior and at elevation, this plant is not a Madrone (Arbutus).
    Coffeeberry does not have the distinctive red bark. Manzanita only sheds its bark in the warmer months and they don't all do it and not necessarily at the same time. So bark shedding is hit or miss on this plant.
    Gustavo has correctly identified your plant. For further information, check out
    For details on manzanita:

    1. Thank you for your helpful comments. They are much appreciated.

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  13. Here is the distribution map for green leafed manzanita.